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Which team has the best five-man unit in the league?

The Spurs are still quite good, as long as they play their main players.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The following was written before the Spurs' game against the Indiana Pacers, and all of the stats are updated for the games played through 11/25.

The Spurs have played 13 games, roughly one-sixth of the season.  It's just enough time where you don't ignore everything because of small sample size but don't take anything super seriously either because it's not enough sample size. Most of the experienced teams don't pay attention to trends and patterns until after one-third of the season --around Christmas time-- so consider the following the halfway mark toward that first real checkpoint.

A record of 9-4 sounds well and good, especially in light of injuries to three of the top nine guys in the rotation: Tiago Splitter, Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli. And it is good to be sure, but the Western Conference is so ridiculous that the Spurs are tied for third in the Southwest division and rank fifth overall in the Western Conference. If the standings were to hold, the Spurs wouldn't even have home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

But it must be said that the Spurs are playing better than even their record indicates. They've navigated through one of the toughest schedules in the league, with eight opponents over .500, the majority of them on the road. The list doesn't even include Cleveland, who sit at 6-7. San Antonio leads everybody in fewest points allowed per game at 91.3 and in defensive rating at 97.6, according to RealGM. In terms of net differential they rank sixth, at 6.2 points-per-100 possessions, even with an offense that's flagging a bit, ranking 22nd overall so far at 103.8.

The injuries have complicated things, and it's forced Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to tinker with different lineups and rotations and perhaps play guys like Austin Daye and even Kyle Anderson more than he would've liked to. Mills' absence was planned of course, but the other two were not. At times the Spurs have had to forgo playing a point guard entirely, relying on point-forwards like Anderson and Boris Diaw to initiate the offense while guys like Danny Green bring the ball up the floor. Miami has done this in recent seasons thanks to their weakness at that spot, but the Spurs' coaching staff seems to be embracing the concept of versatile players and the "position-less basketball" phenomenon that's starting to be in vogue around the league.

Still, Pop has always been one to experiment with different lineups, especially during the first 50 or so games. It goes hand-in-hand with having a deep roster and with his philosophy of resting his star players to save them for the playoffs. He's always played more lineups than coaches of contenders typically do. I wanted to see if that's the case againt this season, so I dug around a bit on, looked at the lineups used by the 20 teams that matter (the Western Conference plus Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Toronto and Washington in the East). Sure enough, the Spurs have used 126 different lineups, which is more than all but Denver, Memphis and Minnesota. The average was 107.2 lineups.


What's even more in keeping with Spurs tradition is that none of their lineups has played that many minutes together, regardless of their effectiveness. Their most common lineup of Tim Duncan-Boris Diaw-Kawhi Leonard-Danny Green-Tony Parker (DDLGP) has logged only 71 minutes together. That ranks 30th in the league.


All the contending teams besides Houston and Minnesota have at least one lineup that's logged more minutes than the Spurs' most common lineup. 17 of the remaining 18 had a lineup that's played at least 110 minutes. 19 of the 20 teams had at least one lineup that's played over 50 minutes. 14 teams have two such lineups. Utah has three. Eight teams had their secondary lineups play over 60 minutes. The Clippers and Thunder had secondary lineups exceed 80 minutes.

As to the effectiveness of those lineups, the Spurs closing group of Tim Duncan-Boris Diaw-Kawhi Leonard-Manu Ginobili-Tony Parker continues to dominate. They've only played 49 minutes together so far, the third-most common lineup Pop has used, and while it isn't a huge sample by any stretch, of the five-man lineups that have played at least that many minutes together, they rank fifth in net differential.

Team                        Lineup                                                               Mins       ORtg     DRtg      Net

Bulls Noah- Gasol- Dunleavy- Butler- Rose                            62           120.5     90.4        30.1

Warriors Bogut-Green-Barnes-Thompson-Curry               131         117.1     88.5        28.5

Rockets Howard-Motiejunas-Ariza-Harden-Canaan         55           107.6     83.9        23.7

Mavericks Wright-Nowitzki-Aminu-Barea-Harris            67           128.1     105.6     22.5

Spurs       Duncan-Diaw-Leonard-Ginobili-Parker            49           108.8     87.2        21.6

The Bulls starting five is frightening, but Derrick Rose's injuries cast a specter over everything. Warriors coach Steve Kerr has found something with Draymond Green starting in place of the injured David Lee and I'd be surprised if Lee got his starting job back at this point. Houston's Donatas Motiejunas and Isaiah Canaan have been effective starting for Terrence Jones and Patrick Beverley, but they've played a soft schedule. But that Dallas lineup is a devastating combination of Dirk Nowitzki with four subs. Brendan Wright in particular is a highly efficient scorer.

Two other lineups just missed the cutoff for the above list, but they caught my attention all the same. First, when the Warriors substituted Andre Iguodala for Harrison Barnes, they've produced a 129.7 offensive rating, 81.3 defensive rating and a 48.4 net rating in 47 minutes. That's incredible. Second, the Timberwolves' starting five of Nikola Pekovic-Thaddeus Young-Andrew Wiggins-Kevin Martin-Ricky Rubio has managed a 113.4 offensive rating, 83.7 defensive rating and a 29.7 net rating in 46 minutes. They're not going to be together again anytime soon due to long-term injuries to Martin and Rubio, but it looks like the T-Pups might have found something.

As for lineups that consist of the "big four" of Duncan-Leonard-Ginobili-Parker plus a random fifth player, they've played 70 minutes with a 111.3 offensive rating, 87.9 defensive rating and a 23.4 differential. That ranks 11th among any foursome that has at least 70 minutes together. Of the ten foursomes ahead of them, seven belong to various Warriors variations, two are Mavericks lineups, and the last is a Houston foursome consisting of Dwight Howard, James Harden, Trevor Ariza and Isaiah Canaan.

The best Spurs foursome turned out to be Diaw-Leonard-Ginobili-Parker, who've played 64 minutes together and produced a 117.5 offensive rating, 86.5 defensive rating, and a 30.8 net. They rank third among any foursomes that have played at least 64 minutes, behind two Warriors lineups that both include Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry.

So what can we conclude from all this? One, Pop's still Pop -- he's will always use this part of the season to experiment. Two, the Spurs are still very, very good when their main guys play. And three, the Warriors should probably be favored against any team in the playoffs except the Spurs, who for some reason are a bad matchup for Golden State. (The Spurs have similar issue with Houston, but that's a story for another day.)